What Will Not Work

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I once heard that there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong” — that there is only “that which works” and “that which does not work.” At the time I was presented with this philosophy, I immediately discarded it as a simple cop-out, as a way of justifying one’s disregard for consequences as long as something desirable comes from it. That was, however, before the great state of California decided that the safest, most effective solution to its grossly over-crowded prison system problem was to dump thousands of neglected, uneducated, untrained prisoners back into society, the same (if not more) bitter men they were, with the same personal and social issues they had when they came to prison in the first place. Now, I understand that action, right or wrong, is necessary, especially in the name of that which works. The only question to ask is: “What works?”

There has been much public outcry over the state’s plans to grant early releases to certain non-violent prisoners, and rightly so. But I’m not sure that people opposed to this plan are outraged at the right things, or for the right reasons. For as detrimental to public safety as such releases are potentially, making inmates serve out their entire sentences — given no rehabilitation programs — only delays the inevitable. And that should make people mad. Just like it makes mad those of us on this side of the walls.

I have been in prison for seven years now, and in that time, yes, I have met some of the meanest, nastiest, most cold-hearted human beings. But for the most part, I have met men who hate where they’ve ended up; who actually want better (for themselves, their families, and even their communities); who are embarrassed and frustrated with themselves — and starving for that which works. Yet, over the past year alone, we have seen many excellent rehabilitative programs with proven results, such as various vocational training courses, college programs, a number of self-help and substance abuse programs, and even, for a while, GED classes, all disappear. What’s worse is that the very programs being eliminated are the same ones that the public believes inmates are required to complete before being released early, when actually, the only inmates for whom rehabilitation is a requirement before being released at all, are those of us who likely will never be granted parole.

When I asked Ben, a thirty-year-old fellow prisoner serving nineteen years, eight months, what he thought about the early release program, he summed it up as accurately as I’ve ever heard, and in two simple words: “It’s bullshit!”

A little deeper into our conversation, Ben also made the observation that if any inmates really are required to complete rehabilitative programs, or even given access to such programs, it must only be those inmates in Level 1 or Level 2 prisons who have been deemed “low risk” by the CDCR. Meanwhile, Level 3 and 4 (the highest security level) prisoners, who have committed the most serious offenses, or committed offenses more regularly, proving the greatest need for rehabilitation, are consistently being denied the necessary tools (e.g. anger management, substance abuse treatment, job training programs) to build even a chance at becoming successful, contributing members of society.

Against popular belief, most of us incarcerated people actually want to be better and make things better. We have the heart and we have the desire. What we are lacking, however, is support. Which is perplexing to me. Because whether anybody likes it, whether it is “early” or according to schedule, we will be on your streets again. And once there, we will either know how to succeed, or how to get ourselves back to prison. Whichever works for you.

Michael Cabral is in his sixth year of a 15-Life sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison, Soledad, California.